Don't touch that plant!
September 22, 2004 7:41 PM   Subscribe

Long, but brilliant. I couldn't think of a more beautiful summary of how stupid it is to make certain plants "illegal".

It is in fact the result of nothing more than a particular legal taxonomy, a classification of certain substances that appear in nature into categories labeled "licit" and "illicit." Any such taxonomy, being the product of a particular culture and history and politics, is an artificial construct. It's not difficult to imagine how it might have been very different than it is... It is said that members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union would relax at the end of a day spent crusading against alcohol with their cherished "women's tonics," preparations whose active ingredient was laudanum--opium. Such was the order of things less than a century ago.
posted by Jimbob at 8:20 PM on September 22, 2004

Mark from Boingboing referenced this article back in January. It's rather long, but definitely a good read, particularly for fans of Jonathan Ott.
posted by shoepal at 8:21 PM on September 22, 2004

This is good. Fascinating.

True, the Founding Fathers had provided for a specific right to bear arms, but the only reason they'd had nothing to say "about the right to plant seeds [was] . . . because it never would have occurred to them that any state might care to abridge that right. After all, they were writing on hemp paper."

Amen. Some days I really wonder about this. I understand the feds' interstate commerce claim to regulating production of psychoactive substances, but classifying plants -- plants! -- as illegal to grow is simply mind-boggling.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:42 PM on September 22, 2004

Imagine our dreary Western future. Only a few regulated plants may be grown by unlicensed home gardeners. Ancient practices such as creating novel hybrid flowers via cross breading have been outlawed by restrictive genetic experimentation laws. The very act of creativity itself is closely monitored to ensure compliance with draconian intellectual property rights laws. Only two or three large corporations can legally produce "new" music thanks to their cross licensing agreements. Independent computer software creation is impossible after all possible fundamental ideas and processes have been patented. We are all under constant surveillance to guard against possible terrorist activities.

And overseas, outside of the system, people in the few remaining evil rogue nations can lie in the grass with a guitar, enjoying the flowers and compose songs of love and freedom.
posted by Meridian at 9:13 PM on September 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

Bob Black has a site collecting his writings; for a while he was persona non grata in some quarters, deserved or not, due to his role in Hogshire's arrest. There's now a book version of Pills A Go Go, and prophetically, another book he wrote before the events of this article called You Are Going to Prison, essentially what you should know before going in -- about violence, cigarettes as currency, and prison rape. The charges against Hogshire were eventually dropped, but Pollan's article inspired others who weren't so lucky.
posted by dhartung at 9:21 PM on September 22, 2004

Simply, stunningly amazing read.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:23 PM on September 22, 2004

Huh. Wow you people are really overreaching here.

I doubt many of you people would have problems banning plants that could produce, for example poisons, or bio-weapons, or whatnot.

I mean what's the diffrence between growing something and producing something by some other chemical process? Why not let peopel grow anthrax?

Why shouldn't people be able to make Crystal Meth? I mean, all they're doing is mixing things. Do you really think the founding fathers would want to ban mixing.


People can become very addicted to Opium, and it can be really hard for people.


Now personaly, I'm for legalizing all drugs, but I don't really think that the few steps needed to produce opium from poppy seeds is much diffrent then the process to make Crystal Meth, or Cocane, or whatever.

Btw, Poppy seeds are actualy legal, just do a search on Ebay. You can by thousands for $5-$20.
posted by delmoi at 9:41 PM on September 22, 2004

*sips tea dreamily*
posted by quonsar at 10:04 PM on September 22, 2004

People can become very addicted to Opium, and it can be really hard for people.

Same is true of cigarettes, alcohol, sex, gambling... and you don't see governments having a problem with that. In the case of gambling they're even going out of their way to make sure they're the ones that profit directly from addicts' misery.
posted by clevershark at 10:12 PM on September 22, 2004

I doubt many of you people would have problems banning plants that could produce, for example poisons, or bio-weapons, or whatnot.

Yes I would. Evolution formed those plants, they have important functions in ecosystems no matter what humans have decided to use them for. Hey, fellas, let's go out and kill all the tigers - after all, they might eat us!

Btw, Poppy seeds are actualy legal, just do a search on Ebay

That's the point of the article - you can buy a seed, but it's illegal to let it grow.

Why shouldn't people be able to make Crystal Meth?

Well, why exactly shouldn't they? Like you said, it's just mixing things...taking some ultimately natural substances that humans have access to, and performing activities with them that human beings have a free right to do. I want to know exactly how you can be for legalizing drugs, but against people manufacturing them, or even growing the plants they happen to come from.
posted by Jimbob at 10:14 PM on September 22, 2004

This was an absolutely fascinating article, and I was really struck by his fascination with the plant and its history- and recognized it, too. While taking my spring jaunt to look at people's gardens, I was stunned and amazed to see a short row of poppies- so amazed that I called my mother to talk about it, because as far as I knew, poppies just wouldn't grow in Indiana. I went back a couple of times just to look at them, and seriously considered knocking on the door to ask how they'd managed to get them to grow. Of course, having read the article, now I don't dare try to grow any, but the read was worth it. Thank you so much for sharing the link!
posted by headspace at 11:07 PM on September 22, 2004

Can someone explain what 'grassing' means in the context of dhartung's second link?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:39 PM on September 22, 2004

I doubt many of you people would have problems banning plants that could produce, for example poisons

Like the stems of cherry trees? Arsenic. Deadly poison that.

Or daffodils. Or oleander. Or castor beans. Or rhubarb leaves. Or rhododendrons. Or mistletoe. All deadly.

Oh, but that's different, right?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:52 PM on September 22, 2004 [2 favorites]

Or daffodils. Or oleander. Or castor beans. Or rhubarb leaves. Or rhododendrons. Or mistletoe. All deadly.

posted by Meridian at 12:27 AM on September 23, 2004

Can someone explain what 'grassing' means

It means to snitch or inform on someone.
posted by the cuban at 2:15 AM on September 23, 2004

Loved the article. Last year I lived at a different house, and was amazed when some strange plants (I thought they were weeds) bloomed in beautiful flowers. Alas, the blooms lasted so breifly! But when the petals dropped, THEN I knew what these flowers were.

I researched it on the web and was amazed. Like so many folks, I had assumed this plant came from Asia. Hahaha. Nope! Asia got it from Europe.

I didn't slit the pods. I was far too worried about legal complications. Far as I know, in the UK, it was perfectly legal to grow the flowers. Taking the sap was the line. My neighbor was a cop, and I even asked him.
posted by Goofyy at 2:52 AM on September 23, 2004

dhartung: Thanks for the link about prison rape. I can attest to the validity of the story he related of events in a Washington DC jail. A dear friend of mine was the victim in that incident. Known in latter years as "Donny the Punk", he formed an org to campaign against prisons' failure to protect inmates. I saw him on 60 Minutes, in 1996, talking about it. He died less than a year latter, of complications from AIDS he got from another jail rape incident (Donny was utterly non-violent).
posted by Goofyy at 3:00 AM on September 23, 2004

headspace: From experience with my mother's garden [in Indiana] poppies are rather easy to grow. She just stuck a few seeds in her experiment-o-plot and it grew into a huge poppy plant. Virtually no care required at least in this case. She has had significantly more trouble growing black lotus though.
posted by sciurus at 3:18 AM on September 23, 2004

" people" - Rule #1 : NEVER address an amorphous, poorly defined group as "you people" and - in fact - never address any group at all in this a manner as well.

It generally doesn't go over well.


"This was my first introduction to what civil-liberties lawyers have taken to calling "the drugs exception to the Bill of Rights." Over the past several years, in cases involving drugs, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the government's new crop of laws, penalties, and police tactics, thereby narrowing the scope of due process as well as long-established protections against illegal search, double jeopardy, and entrapment."

The writer seems curiously innocent to me - perhaps still only beginning to emerge from the dreamy stupor of assumed American Middle class privilege to realize his assumed rights were, in fact, non-existent.

There is a long historical precedent to the current US "War on Drugs", as this quote reveals quite starkly :

"t was Innocent III, earlier in the century, who had given it a bloody example to follow. When the heretics of the south of France had laughed at the arguments of his legates, he had stooped to the device of appealing to the greed and lust of all the available military adventurers, and had declared the “crusade” which is known in history as the massacre of the Albigensians.

Innocent formulated a new principle of “persuasion” of heretics. There was a Papal seat at Viterbo, and the pope was horrified to learn that not only the consuls or magistrates of the town, but his own chamberlain were Cathars! He soon altered that, and he laid down this grim principle:

According to civil law criminals convicted of treason are punished with death and their goods are confiscated. With how much more reason then should they who offend Jesus, Son of the Lord God, by deserting their faith, be cut off from the Christian communion and stripped of their goods.

When there was some doubt amongst the jurists how far the law against heresy was still in force, the great pope demanded death and confiscation of goods. The Nazi actions against the Jews, in what is deplored as the “Holocaust” used exactly the same principles as those of the Christian Church in the Inquisition. People were accused, murdered and robbed.

Moreover, Innocent, whose name must have been chosen to fool that Christian God upstairs, completed the foundations of the Inquisition by reaffirming, with heavier emphasis, that the bishops were not to wait for charges of heresy, but were to seek it out in an “inquisitio”. They were to have special officials, or “inquisitors”, for this purpose. Innocent drew up explicit instructions for the procedure, and between 1204 and 1213 he issued four decretals, Papal decrees, ordering such searches in various places.

People were encouraged to report their suspicions to the inquisitors and a network of spies was initiated. Soon the least remark might lead to someone being handed over to the Inquisition. Everyone had to betray their friends and relatives to escape the notional eternal torture promised by the popes. Sons betrayed their fathers, infants their mothers. The first Holy Office was opened in Toulouse and then one was opened in Aragon in 1238. The Church soon realised it was too profitable not to use more widely, and offices were opened, elsewhere, in France, in Holland, Germany, and later in Spain and Portugal. "

posted by troutfishing at 4:15 AM on September 23, 2004

In Wired today an article that proofs that our brain can indeed make Morphine (which is very close to Opium) itself. The next thing is that they are going to raid our brains.
Or do they already?
posted by lagado at 6:39 AM on September 23, 2004

This is your brain on it's own homemade morphine!
posted by troutfishing at 6:54 AM on September 23, 2004

so that's why dorothy fell asleep.
posted by mrplab at 7:02 AM on September 23, 2004

Goofyy: Stephen Donaldson's expurgated reading of Hooking Up: Protective Pairing for Punks on This American Life's Lock Up was one of the saddest things I ever heard.
posted by y2karl at 7:20 AM on September 23, 2004

Interesting notes there Troutfishing.

I learned part of the church history you mention from Umberto Eco.

When it comes to the "war on drugs", I think the movie Traffic pretty well covered it.
When will we stop declaring war on our own children?
They are always the first to suffer for the arrogance of old fools.
posted by nofundy at 7:20 AM on September 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Jeez, y2karl. That and the "You Are Going to Prison" link really makes me want to move out of this country. Or start building mass now, just in case.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:02 AM on September 23, 2004

...whether or not the opium poppies in your garden are illicit depends not on what you do, or even intend to do, with them but very simply on what you know about them.

posted by five fresh fish at 9:24 AM on September 23, 2004

Btw, Poppy seeds are actualy legal, just do a search on Ebay. You can by thousands for $5-$20.

Just to be clear, if you want opium poppies you need papaver somniferum or "sleep poppies," available in the spice section of your grocery store (ostensibly for eating purposes only).
posted by Shane at 9:31 AM on September 23, 2004

I really enjoyed reading this. The author of the article, Michael Pollan, has a book called The Botany Of Desire. It's a great read; he discusses marijuana in it, among other things. Nice to find more of what he's written.
posted by Melinika at 9:58 AM on September 23, 2004

Best to just skirt the poppies altogether, and tiptoe through the tulips.
posted by troutfishing at 12:30 PM on September 23, 2004

so that's why dorothy fell asleep.

Yes. Wizard Of Oz is all about drugs. Notice that the poppies put them to sleep, and the snow wakes them up.
posted by gnz2001 at 1:59 PM on September 23, 2004

I doubt many of you people would have problems banning plants that could produce, for example poisons, or bio-weapons, or whatnot.

Just to connect a few dots here: Castor beans can be bought in any garden catalogue (they're also a common wild species). Castor beans can be used to make ricin. Ricin is classed by the US Dept. of Homeland Security as a chemical warfare agent. Ricin has been used in "white powder" attacks on the US senate, the latest happening this spring, I think. Ricin was also the poison famouly used to assasinate Georgi Markov, coated on the sharpened point of an umbrella.

So, yeah, you can, and many people do, grow WMDs in their gardens. Now that you know, does that mean you can expect a "kick-in" for growing beans?
posted by bonehead at 3:09 PM on September 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

great article, though as always, it leaves me depressed about the continuing insanity of a "war" on drugs that will never, ever, EVER be won, and in the meantime continues to pervert geopolitics and fill prisons with young men whose crime is absurdly defined.
posted by jcruelty at 3:17 PM on September 23, 2004

Just to be clear, if you want opium poppies you need papaver somniferum or "sleep poppies," available in the spice section of your grocery store (ostensibly for eating purposes only).

if you actually read the article you find that this is not exactly true. Seed catalogs sell a number of different supposed species that are actually papaver somniferum, including "breadseed poppies" and "giant poppies" and a couple of other latin names that I can't be troubled to go back and look up.
posted by norm at 8:15 AM on September 24, 2004

I, too, was annoyed at the author's naivete. Whether it should be this way or not is another matter; but it simply is the truth that we are allowed to go about our business at the whim of authorities that can, and do, otherwise capriciously decide to charge us with one or more offenses against the law.

Being as law-abiding as the average citizen is not the secret to staying out of trouble. Staying off authorities' radar is. Once they've noticed you, you're fucked. And there are a good number of us in American society who attract notice merely because we have the wrong skin color, live in the wrong neighborhood, have peculiar beliefs, or just have had some bad luck.

The average citizen believes they've not spent a night in jail because they're one of the "regular" folks, the good folks, the normal folks—not one of those people that are always up to no good. When, for example, they're in New York during the RNC and are an innocent bystander arrested as part of a sweep of "rowdy demonstrators", they're shocked! at the cruel injustice of the system. Meanwhile, most of the people reading about the sweep at home or watching it on TV have strong suspicions that these protestations of innocence are at least partly false. More likely than not, they think, that person was probably, at minumum, standing next to a person who threw a rock at the cops, right?

Again, it's hard to resist the temptation of unequivocably saying that it shouldn't be this way. But I have the suspicion that even the best examples of rules of law are deeply flawed and very far from ideal.

What's important are two things: first, for one's own practical self-interest, one should be aware that staying out of legal trouble is more about not attracting notice than it is obeying the law. In many cases, the accusation of breaking the law, even when wholly and obviously false, is still sufficient enough to drastically change the course of one's life.

Second, in terms of being a good citizen, having a social conscience, trying to make the world a better place than it is, it's important to understand how so very not "blind" much of justice really is, in practice.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:23 AM on September 24, 2004

Designer poppies.
posted by euphorb at 12:22 PM on September 25, 2004

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